Read an Excerpt
At this time a slight sleep relieved me from the pain of reflection, which was disturbed by the approach of a beautiful child, who came running into the recess I had chosen, with all the sportiveness of infancy. Suddenly, as I gazed on him, an idea seized me that this little creature was unprejudiced and had lived too short a time to have imbibed a horror of deformity. If, therefore, I could seize him and educate him as my companion and friend, I should not be so desolate in this peopled earth.
--Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
They called themselves ReCreation, described themselves as sort of educational, sort of artsy. The pay was lousy, but I needed work. They never touched anything that wasn't a classic--a term they took to mean old enough so that even all the translators' rights had run out a century ago. They didn't want to share the carcass with other scavengers. They thought themselves cutting edge when they screwed around with Heart of Darkness, like they'd never heard of Coppola. Come to think of it, they probably hadn't. Heart of Darkness either, for that matter, except as a test question or two, long, long ago. They were into literature for the money.
They monitored the feedback from high school kids responding to the standard dose of virtual classics and identified the plot forks that didn't sit quite so well with the modern sixteen-year-old in a VR box as they had with the original audience reading them off the page. Sufficient youthful dissatisfaction made any classic a candidate for a ReCreation makeover. The idea was the kids would get more involved if the story wasn't just cut and dry, always the same, if their roles weren't so passive, and they had choices to make. As the promotional propaganda cooed: "Young minds will be empowered by shaping the literature they experience, just as it is shaping them!"
As if it wasn't obvious what they were really up to. They, and a dozen others just like them at the time, were trying to reproduce the success of Lucky Lucifer's Pair-o'-Dice, an immensely popular adaptation of Milton's Paradise Lost based on the none-too-surprising finding that most sixteen-year-olds liked Lucifer a whole lot better than the boring, conceited Lord God of Hosts. Lucky started out as an educational alternative virtual, quickly broke into mainstream, then became an enduring media phenomenon (if "enduring" means more than a couple of years). The Midwest educational programmer who dreamed it up and financed the whole thing with do-good educational grants from Coca-Cola and Philip Morris (or whatever they were calling themselves that week) was now a good deal richer than God. Who says there's no justice in the universe? Not Lucifer, certainly.
ReCreation hoped to follow in his digital footsteps with a clear business plan: (1) create educational alternative virtuals--grant-funded and tax-incentived and available on demand 24/7 to kids who want their learning to be fun and engaging; (2) hope like hell the little bastards choose your fun and engaging garbage out of the landfill on offer; and then (3) watch their folks follow like lemmings, dragging everybody else over the abyss with them.
What choice did we have? Being a single, childless person over thirty-five wasn't yet illegal--which was very tolerant of the society at large, considering what selfish, immature, shallow, un-American, unnatural deviants we all were.
Yeah. The kids were where the money was in those days, and ReCreation was hoping this classics angle might pay off and they too would become richer than God. Unfortunately, until that noble goal was reached, hiring actors like me was a necessary inconvenience.
"We're trying to save this stuff from extinction," Wally the writer--Gary the director's brother-in-law--said in my interview. I think he actually believed it. That's what they called the literature they ReCreated--stuff, even when they were being pious. Wally said a lot of stupid things, often to himself, and no one ever contradicted him. I gathered from this he was the one with the lion's share of the venture capital. As for Gary and the others, they pretended to care about the words, pretended they were all about empowering hapless youth who had to learn all this old stuff, but all they really cared about were the numbers.
ReCreation itself was little more than a big loft over some dead retail, furnished with folding chairs, a slumpy sofa, and tables made from old doors and sawhorses. One end of the room was filled with secondhand recording equipment with the logos of several defunct production companies still painted on it. Wally and Gary didn't care. ReCreation, as far as I know, didn't even have a logo. They had a vision. They were either going to make it big, or pack it up when the money ran out. Who needed a logo? What they needed was an instant classic.
Wally typically sat at the other end of the loft from the hardware and the crew, and wrote his heart out. I suspected that the whole enterprise might really be about Wally's writing aspirations, and he secretly didn't care about the money. Of course, if they didn't make any money, his writing career would be very brief.
The rest of us, under Gary's direction, brought Wally's words to life on the other end. There were a half-dozen others in various capacities doing all the real work, as well as playing bit parts as needed.
In my first role for them, I was cast as Marlow in Heart of Darkness II, in which Marlow, after telling his mates Heart of Darkness in one incredibly long-winded evening, decides next morning, in a fit of implausible feminism, that he must make his way to Brussels and tell Kurtz's nameless Intended nothing less than the Truth, even if she is a woman. I asked Gary if he didn't mean lowercase truth, but he insisted he wanted all caps, bold and italics for good measure, extra mayo and pickles. All of which told me he'd never read any Conrad and wasn't about to start now.
"Fine," I said. That's what I always said to directors. Which is one reason I'm not an actor anymore.
HD2 starts with me hitting the mean streets of Brussels, and before you know it, the Intended and I are floating down the Congo having a torrid affair--African Queen meets Last Tango in Paris, but without the butter and leeches. This got us immediately filtered out of all but the most progressive educational feeds, but Wally didn't seem to mind dumping our target audience before we laid a finger on them. He was making art. He was inspired. He was nuts. Meanwhile, back in HD2, the object of our river cruise and our sexual marathon grew increasingly muddled and complex. Something to do with redemption and missed opportunities and looking up Kurtz's African lover for a possible menage a trois, according to my undeliverable lines.
For me, this was yet another career-ending opportunity. If HD2 broke out as the latest dreadful, I'd never live it down. Fortunately, I was heavily made up to accommodate Gary's idea of ruddy sailor, and I was using a stage name, Nicholas Bainbridge. Everyone called me Nick. Including my costar, the Intended, whose real name, she swore, was Luella Anthony.
No one knew my real name.
No one even nibbled at the HD2 feed but the porn crowd, and Luella and I weren't good enough to hold them for long, especially since we had to stop now and again and muse about what it all meant in Wally's bad prose. Though, increasingly, Luella and I wandered from the script in self-defense or out of boredom. Once, when we were going at it in a pretzel-like position Wally must've cribbed from the Kama Sutra, Luella cried out, "The horror! The horror!" and I cracked up laughing.
I think that's when I started falling for Luella, the real one, not the Intended, whose name (we had to give her a name) was Tiffany. "Tiffany isn't Belgian, is it?" I asked and everyone gave me a blank look but Luella, who stifled a smile. She reads, I thought then. I wonder what her story is. And I determined to find out.
So far, I hadn't had much luck. She was younger than my around forty, but not by that much. She rode the bus. I didn't know which one. But I'd seen her at the stop up the street. Her street clothes, like mine, were strictly thrift store. She never talked about her life outside that loft. But then, I didn't either. There wasn't that much to talk about. My place was about the size of this sentence. Furnished. After dinner you could hear cans hitting the pile at the bottom of the air shaft. I added mine to the clatter, beans usually. When the cans reached the windowsill, I planned to walk across the shaft and visit my neighbors, trade recipes or something.
Heart of Darkness II faded as quickly as a neutrino. But ReCreation liked my work, which is to say they suspected I was desperate enough to make another one of their turkeys, and they had yet to exhaust their funds. Dead grandfather money, I believe it was. Anyway, we did a meeting.
"Have you ever read Frankenstein?" Gary asked me.
"Yes," I said. They nodded at each other--the flock of them--impressed I was such a reader. I'd discovered they were all related to one another in some way or other--cousins, nieces, step-something-or-others--except for Brenda, the researcher, who, as implausible as it seemed, used to be Wally's girlfriend. These days, they scarcely gave each other a glance.
"Why do you ask?" I said.
"We want you to play Victor Frankenstein."
"What's the gimmick?" I'd learned from the ReCreation bunch that gimmick wasn't a pejorative term, but the thing to be sought after in any potentially lucrative work of art. Mary Shelley and I waited with trepidation to hear Gary and Wally's take on her novel.
"Well, you know the part in the novel where the monster runs into William, Victor's kid brother, and the monster tries to befriend him, but the kid's a little shit, and the monster kills him?" Gary, who never encumbered himself with the classic he was ReCreating, made a quick look around to make sure he'd gotten the scene right, and got the nod from Brenda. After they saw all that feedback, she would've been the one to check it out, maybe even reading the scene itself. She was holding the pages in her hands--not the scene from the novel, but the numbers on the feedback--the breakdown on how all these kids across the nation felt the scene should go, if it was up to them, which, with ReCreation's help, it was.
"Yes. I know the scene. The whole novel hinges on it."
"Oh yeah? Pretty good, then, huh? 'Cause we've got a negative feedback wave there like you wouldn't believe. Kids really like the monster. They figure he gets a bad deal. Everybody treats him like shit, apparently. They identify with him. You know what I mean? Here's the gimmick: The kid's nice. The monster and the kid become friends. Like, like--I don't know--Rocky and Bullwinkle, Lucky and Beebub."
The ReCreation catalogue was filled with stupid ideas, but this was the stupidest yet. It just might have a chance to make it big. "Sure, I'll do it. You should get Luella for Elizabeth, Victor's fiancee."
"There's no fiancee," Gary said. "Luella's the female creature. Right?"
"There is no female creature," I said. "That's only in the movies. Victor destroys it before he brings it to life."
"Tell that to Wally."
Wally, as usual, was sitting at his card table, at the other end of the loft, in another universe, writing up a storm. Everybody looked at him. "When do we start?" I asked.
"We'll call you when we cast the monster and the kid. A couple of days maybe."
I caught up with Luella waiting for her bus. "I understand we're going to be working together again," I said, still a little breathless. I hadn't run three blocks in a while. The blurry wall of moving cars behind her made me slightly dizzy. At this time of day, the streets were a single, slithering snake of machinery.
We hadn't talked much about anything except whatever scene we were working on, though often we traded wisecracks and eye rolls behind Gary's back, and ad libs designed more for each other than an audience neither of us believed would ever exist. Standing there at the bus stop, she smiled at me like we were still trading some inside joke. "Is that a good thing?" she asked.
"Yes, certainly. Definitely a good thing. The best. You want to go have a drink or something? To . . . to celebrate?"
Her smile widened. "Celebrate your certainty? Sure. But do you do that--go out for drinks?"
"Not usually." She knew what kind of money I made. She made the same.
"You don't have to spend a lot of money to celebrate. Just bus fare. There's a place in my neighborhood. Very affordable. My treat."
The bus pulled up, like part of a torrential river just stopped and became this bus. The cars flowed around it. I followed her on before I remembered I didn't have any cash. I rode on her pass, or because she was friends with the friendly driver, I wasn't sure which, but my mind was on other things. The bus was packed. Luella and I rode standing, hanging from the same loop, our bodies pressed up against each other, jostling together with the ceaseless motion of the bus.
Lots of people think we actually fuck making virtuals, thinking that's the only way it could be so incredibly real. If that were true, canned laughter would make any joke funny. Somebody has to fuck, it's true, but it's not us. We assume the positions, we deliver the lines. We don't experience the fuck unless we pay to play, like anybody else.
But here I was, riding in a real bus plastered up against the flesh-and-blood Luella, as the bus weaved and bounced down the street, the driver swerving back and forth to miss the potholes that were everywhere once we left the smart grid. Or maybe he was aiming for them. The effect was about the same. It was a rough-and-tumble ride, and I loved every minute of it.
THE LAPDOG GENE
Elwood: "Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, 'In this world, Elwood, you must be'--she always called me Elwood--'In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. And you may quote me."--Mary Chase, Harvey
Luella lived in a neighborhood on its way up. She was one of the folks being left behind--the ones who didn't have bars on their windows, stockade fences around their backyards, and licensed cars parked out front on their freshly paved streets. We passed all that and headed down a street where the only car on the block hadn't gone anywhere in so long it had cats living in it. She stopped in front of a small run-down house on the corner. It was dark, and the front porch drooped. There were voices and laughter coming from somewhere close by. "We're here," she said.
"Is this where you live?" I asked.